July 28, 2009

The Tip Jar

 Let me say upfront that I’m not complaining about the fact that I can make money while playing the piano. But it sometimes feels as though time is moving backwards during a four hour gig. I do two things to help pass the time. One of them is observing the audience, trying to guess what the best selections are. The other one is to welcome and hope for requests. A relative of mine once said “when you play solo piano, how can you stand it when people come up and ask for songs? I could never do that.” Actually, I welcome it. It’s a challenge, and, let’s be frank, it also helps feed the tip jar.

Last Friday I played a restaurant that I usually work about once a month. It’s an enjoyable gig. There’s always a decent sized crowd and even though they don’t seem like they’re listening, I know they are. It was an active night for requests but it didn’t start on a great note. A young woman came up and asked me if I could play “Somewhere In Time.” All I could remember was that there was a movie of the same name and this was the opening theme. I tried the approach “can you hum a few bars?” This sometimes will work. If a person can hum or sing the beginning of the song sometimes it’ll jog my memory and I can fake my way through it, filling their request. When I asked her to hum a few bars she looked a little puzzled and said “I’ll be right back.” And she went back to the table with her friends. I figured she was going to ask them to hum a few bars and then come back and hum it to me. She returned and said, “okay, how about ‘Mac the Knife’?” Now there’s a transition for you. But yes, “Mac the Knife” I certainly can play.

Afterwards I focused on a Hispanic couple I saw come in. So I did my standard queue to myself, what would I play for a Hispanic couple? This is a game of chance because making assumptions often does not work. In fact, shortly after they sat down the young man approached the piano and I said to myself oh whatever this is I’m not going to be able to get it. In fact, he asked for the “Theme from Love Story.” Sure, I can get through “Love Story” for you. And as I played it I saw them gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, and wondered if he knew that the woman in “Love Story” died at the end? Nonetheless, it made them happy. The next time I looked up he was giving her food from his own plate with his fork. This couple was tight. His next trip to the piano had me anticipate another cloying love theme. In fact, he asked for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” This sent my mind off into all kinds of scenarios as I struggled to get through this not-so-typical pop tune. Perhaps one of them had been away somewhere in the military or incarcerated, and the other one did indeed tie a yellow ribbon around some tree in front of their house hoping for the return. Perhaps they like Tony Orlando because he is Latino.

These musings were brought to an end as the requests for the evening started to multiply. A young man I vaguely knew sat down with his parents and sister and the requests started coming one after another: “Autumn Leaves?” No problem. “Girl from Ipanema?” Sure. “My Funny Valentine?” What key? “Bridge over Troubled Water?” Bingo. I was on a roll and my tip jar looked healthy. Finally I was waylaid by a request from the oldest person at the table, the father. Could I play “Forgiveness” by Don Henley. Awww, an 80’s tune. The closer the decade to the present, the lower my batting average. I couldn’t play it. So I played “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles as a consolation.

There’s an interesting social interaction that happens when people make requests. First of all, do they make a request without putting any money in the tip jar? I would say this is a faux pas, even if they don’t realize it. Do they hold the bill, make the request, and then if you say “sure I can play that” THEN put the bill in the tip jar? If they put the bill in your jar and make the request and you don’t know it, what then? Take it out? That has never happened to me. But if a person puts the money in the jar and then makes the request, you do feel a certain pressure to play the song. My experience has been that if you can play the first couple of bars and make it sound passable that most people will be happy and say “yeah, that’s how that goes.”

I’ve previously related how people have come up and made requests of songs that I played just a few minutes before, as if the tune got in their head and they didn’t know what it was at the time, but their mind told them shortly thereafter that that’s what they wanted to hear.

Near the end of the evening, an elderly woman pulled up a chair next to the piano just to watch. “I like your style,” she said. I said “thanks a lot, is there anything I can play for you?” “I’d love if you’d play ‘Stardust’.” STARDUST! “Stardust” is one of those tunes that you really can’t fake, and it’s also one of those tunes that I keep saying I have to memorize. In addition, on this particular night, I kept confusing “Stardust” with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” If you know these two tunes and you hum the first couple bars of each one you’ll find that the ascending melody line is quite similar. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get one separated from the other. So I ended up playing what sounded like “I’m Getting Stardust Over You.” She seemed happy. I was aggravated with my own memory.

            After my “Stardust/Sentimental” medley I thought the night was over as far as requests. In the last five minutes a guy came up and asked for — you won’t believe it — “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” I looked at him and said “are you joking?” He said “well no, I like that song.” I thought he was in cahoots with the fellow from earlier on but — go figure. Two requests for that song in the same evening.

As far as the tip jar, experience tells me to feed the tip jar first. You have to put a couple of bills in there so people know why that jar is sitting on the piano. What denominations you prime it with depends on where you are playing. I usually put in a five and a couple of ones. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t putting the bills in correctly until the veteran hostess at this particular restaurant came over to my tip jar, took the folded bills out, straightened them out with a nice crease lengthwise, and then leaned them against the side of the glass. “Better to see them,” she said. People in New York City or Miami Beach may prime their tip jars with twenties, perhaps even fifties. I think the going rate around here is smaller denominations.

All-in-all it was one of the more enjoyable evenings I’ve played. There were a lot of playable requests and a lot of tips. When I grabbed the bills and stuffed them into my coat pocket they made a nice bulge on the way home. I always resist counting. I let my wife do that. They were all ones. 

July 21, 2009

Interchangeable Parts

Fortunately it’s been a busy summer gig-wise, with my own band, various sideman gigs, and the occasional stopping in to hear other local summer concerts and club dates. The last couple of weeks a phrase popped into my head that has to date back to junior high social studies, “interchangeable parts.” The phrase was first coined in the late 1700’s when some enterprising inventors figured out how to create firearms, muskets more specifically, using all the same interchangeable parts in case one part broke. Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame played some role in this invention. Somehow the phrase seems to apply both to my own work and what I see from my fellow musicians.

In this area, and I suspect in most music communities, you first get a gig, then you get a band. Unless you have a working group where you can afford to keep the same musicians employed almost full time, a leader is often required to fill in spots with various players. It all works out in the mix: the parts — whether they be drummers, bassists, guitarists or saxophonists — usually will fill the bill and the gig will go more or less as planned. Every musician, especially a leader, has his A list, his B list, and a C list (that hopefully he doesn’t have utilize). Once they get a gig they start making the phones work seeing if they can line up the best possible quartet, quintet, or big band to fill the date. A common exchange between local musicians might go as follows: “Hey I saw Steve the other night at Tiny’s.” “Oh yeah? Who’d he have with him?” There is mild curiosity as to how it would have sounded, and an underlying question as to what list am I on of Steve’s, as obviously I did not get the call.

Non-musicians may wonder how all this works out. If you think of a sports analogy it might make sense. You certainly could put a basketball team together and play a competitive game if you chose a good center, point guard, power forward, etc. They know how the game works. It may not be a championship team but they’ll be able to make a good showing. But unlike machine parts, the level of filling the spot in the mix will of course vary from athlete to athlete and musician to musician.

What gets people on my A list is not only how well they play. It’s almost a given that they don’t make any list unless they play competently. What determines the designated list is often what they don’t bring to the gig. I call it baggage: failure to be punctual, failure to understand what volume level is appropriate for the job, failure to play the appropriate style. If it’s a Rock & Roll date, playing in a progressive jazz style may impress the particular person who’s playing it (they may be self-impressed) but it will not fit the music. So a lot of things go into why you call a certain person, and obviously the player who plays well and does not carry baggage are those who are hardest to get because they’re on everyone’s A list

This process of filling holes for a gig happens at every level. If you’re an avid reader of LP liner notes, as I used to be and still am, you’ll sometimes notice an odd name in the listing for bands like Count Basie or the Duke Ellington Orchestra. If you knew the band you’d say “what’s that saxophone player doing on this LP?” It could be that the second alto player had a dentist appointment when they made the recording session and he couldn’t get there and they had to call a sub. I recall one memorable exchange with saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who was recently quoted in another blog entry (June 7, “The Power of the Eighth Note”). I noticed Jerry’s name on a Count Basie record, “Hollywood Basie’s Way,” recorded in 1966. There was Jerry Dodgion playing second alto on this recording. Now Jerry Dodgion was never a full time member of the Count Basie Orchestra and I asked him about that. Here is the exchange:

MR: You played on this particular record with Basie [“Hollywood Basie’s Way”].

JD: Oh, that one.

MR: Yeah. Remember that one?

JD: Sure I do.

MR: Nice record. And how did that come about?

JD: Well I knew almost everybody in the band because I’d gone to hear the band so much in those years. And one day Billy Mitchell called me and he said “what are you doing Thursday?” I said “I’m not doing anything, why” He said “well would you like to make a recording date with Count Basie?” I said “that’s why I’m alive.” I mean that’s the dream, I mean unbelievable, I thought that’s never going to happen. Well he said Bobby Plater had to take off, because he was writing a date for Lockjaw that was scheduled at the exact same time so he couldn’t be there, so would I come in and play. I said great. So I got to play with Marshall Royal, with Basie, and that was always a dream too, you know, because [he was] the consummate lead alto player for that band. As Thad used to say, “tailor made lead alto.” That was really a thrill. Wonderful.

I’m positive Jerry did his utmost to act as an interchangeable part, filling the role seamlessly and making sure he stayed on Basie’s list.